YEALANDS CLASSIC FIGHTERS 2017   -  Omaka / New Zealand

The picturesque Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island is an area usually renowned for its fine wines and magnificent scenery, however every two years at Easter time the surrounding hills come alive to the stirring sounds of piston and jet aircraft engines.  Yealands Classic Fighters 2017 provided all who attended with a three day program of non-stop action that did not disappoint. This year’s event provided more than 30,000 visitors with an impressive range of flying displays of military and civilian aircraft not only from a bygone era but also of a more contemporary nature.

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Located approximately four kilometres west of the town of Blenheim, Omaka airfield was originally established by a small group of enthusiasts in the 1920’s with the airfield now being owned and operated by the Omaka Aero Club. The airfield is also home to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre that maintains a superb collection of aircraft and artefacts relating to New Zealand’s rich aviation history. Two of the key displays presently underway at the heritage centre are the Knights of the Sky exhibition, depicting aerial combat of the First World War and the Dangerous Skies exhibition, portraying aircraft and artefacts from the dark days of the Second World War. While both exhibits have attracted over 300,000 visitors to Omaka, making it one of the biggest attractions within the region, its also interesting to note that the majority of the aircraft exhibited actually participate in the flying displays of the show. Its clear when visiting the centre is that the results of the effort gone into these displays has made the Omaka Heritage Centre absolutely world class.

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Each days flying program opened with a wonderful display of close precision formation flying by the new Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) display team the BLACK FALCONS in their recently acquired Beechcraft T-6 TEXAN II trainers. New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) participation continued with handling demonstrations of NHI NH90 and Kaman SG2(I) SEASPRITE multirole helicopters. The RNZAF parachute display team KIWI BLUE also demonstrated their skills by landing perfectly in front of the crowd while their Lockheed-Martin C-130H HECULES drop plane later performed a very low pass, a great sight against the beautiful countryside surrounding Omaka.

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Seven replica Fokker DR1 triplanes and a single Fokker DVII belonging to The Vintage Aviator Limited (TAVL) then took to the air in a mass display aerial combat from a bygone era. Allied aircraft such as a Sopwith CAMEL and Nieuport N11 were equally well demonstrated in a series of well choreographed manoeuvres that included classic dogfights. Interestingly while the TVAL Nieuport N11 is a reproduction, complete with Italian markings, it still flies with an original 100 year old Le Rhone 9c 80 HP rotary engine.

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The beautifully restored DeHavilland DH112 VENOM owned by John Luff made an appearance performing several flypasts with this particular example sporting the markings of No 14 Sqn RNZAF. The Grumman TBM-3E AVENGER of Brendan Deere was equally well received by the crowd. The RNZAF operated two squadrons of AVENGER aircraft during the Second World War seeing action in the Pacific theatre.  Other US built combat aircraft operated by the RNZAF during the Second World War included the Vought/Goodyear FG-1D CORSAIR with the example at Classic Fighters being owned and operated by the Old Stick and Rudder Company of Masterton New Zealand and superbly displayed by Keith Skilling. A beautifully restored Curtiss P-40E KITTYHAWK sporting Nationalist Chinese markings was also displayed by Stuart Goldspink who came out from the UK specially for the event.

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Representing Commonwealth fighter aircraft of the Second World War were no less than three beautifully restored Supermarine Spitfires including a Mk IXc, a MK XIV and a very rare T.9 two-seat trainer. The North American AT-6 HARVARD trainer was also a popular warbird at Classic Fighters with no less that four performing great displays of paired take offs and close formation flying. The YAK-52 formation aerobatic team provided a very tight and colourful display of agility and handling in their Yakovlev Yak-52 trainers featuring no less that eight aircraft, the largest number of the type ever to appear at Classic Fighters.

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Making its first appearance at Classic Fighters was the YAK-3 ”STEADFAST”. This highly modified nine times world speed record holder is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney R2800 1,750 HP radial engine providing a top speed of 655 kmh. Originally modified to compete at the Reno air races this very special aeroplane is now permanently based at Archerfield Airport Queensland Australia. STEADFAST demonstrated its speed and power through the nearby hills together with its V-12 in-line powered cousin YAK-3Ua.

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Twin engine military aircraft at Classic Fighters included a Consolidated PBY-5A CATALINA sponsored by Catalina Sounds Wines. The result of a four year restoration project, this magnificent aeroplane was also available for joyrides to paying customers. The superb Avro ANSON Mk 1 owned and operated by Bill Reid also performed throughout the show making several low passes which included smoke being generated from the engines providing a great visual effect. A former RNZAF DeHavilland DH 104 DEVON was also present complete with RNZAF livery.

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Making its first airshow appearance was a special visitor from” across the ditch” in the form of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Leonardo C-27J SPARTAN tactical transport of 37 Squadron based at RAAF Richmond in New South Wales. The RAAF operate ten of the type replacing the venerable De Havilland DH-4 CARIBOU in the tactical transport role within the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). While a relatively small country New Zealand maintains some of the most remote and rugged areas in the world and bush pilots are still quite common there. Two bush pilots provided impressive demonstrations of the short field capabilities their “Big Wheel” Piper CUB aircraft taking off and landing (sometimes only on one wheel) in extremely short distances.

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Each day also saw First and Second World War ground battle scenarios featuring ground theatre re-enactors dressed in authentic kit and equipped with blank firing weapons at times supported by fighter aircraft, tanks and other (some replica) vehicles of the era.  The detail in which is these re-enactors go to achieve authenticity must be seen to be believed and goes a long way to allowing the audience to be even more immersed in the action unfolding before them. To say the Yealands Classic Fighters 2017 show was a great success would be an understatement. Under the key theme “Racing Through Time” organisers fully achieved their aim of highlighting the progression of aviation technology from its earliest days to the present, through both war and peace.

Verdict: Yealands Classic Fighters 2017 was a truly wonderful event that had something for everyone, while the Omaka Heritage Centre alone should be the go to destination for anyone even remotely interested in New Zealand’s rich aviation history. Classic Fighters was an extremely well run event with a great flying program featuring a diverse range of unique and historic aircraft in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, what was there not to like? Only that we’ll have to wait another two more years for Classic Fighters 2019!

Checksix-Online would like to thank Rachael Brown, Dave McDonald and the Yealands Classic Fighters 2017 team for their wonderful assistance and support during the event.

Rob Hynes / editor CHK6

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